October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. It's an opportunity to talk about disability employment issues, celebrate disabled workers' contributions to America's society, and dispel the myth that those who areneurodivergent only excel in tech roles. Talent and creativity abound in all people, and countless industries can benefit from their contributions and innovations.
A creative mind is a creative mind, regardless of any diagnosis. As a result, neurodivergent people should not only be welcomed and invited into the art world. The arts are all about new and exciting perspectives, and who better to deliver those than people with uniquely functioning brains?
We all have absorbed and enjoyed art produced by autistic individuals; we just haven't known as much. Tim Burton, Andy Warhol, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Stanley Kubrick have reportedly been on the spectrum. Yet, in our daily lives, we see pieces and performances created by autistic people without knowing who designed them or their abilities. That is one of the true beauties of art.
"Disabled performers bring lived experience to a role that is disability focused. However, for roles of all kinds (not only disability-focused), but it is also important to remember that people with disabilities are among the most directable, adaptable, and creative people you will ever meet," explained Danielle Pretsfelder Demchick, CSA. Ms. Demchick is a Casting Director focusing on elevating underrepresented communities and a talent and casting consultant for GAMUT Management. GAMUT represents performers with disabilities only. She is also currently pursuing a master's degree in disability studies.
"This is because of their daily need to find creative solutions to adapt to an ableist society. They are innately among the most imaginative and innovative individuals you will ever meet because of the essentialness of being resourceful to do everyday tasks and beyond."
Keeping Ms. Demchick's words in mind, here are some roles that the differently abled could bring something unique and special to:
Musician – Playing an instrument is a lifelong hobby; with some dedication and commitment, it can also become a paying gig. From local garage bands to more formal ensembles and orchestras, people on the spectrum can collaborate professionally to play music. However, they enjoy it, no matter where they live. For particularly confident players, giving lessons is another possibility. Some businesses and organizations offer group and individual lessons, and being an instructor can be a fun way to appreciate an instrument.
Joel Felsenstein is the Founder of RockstarX, a musician and songwriter who is autistic. Felsenstein feels that being an autistic artist for the past 25 years has given him the creative freedom to express himself. It has also allowed him a voice in a society that he feels doesn't like anything less than conforming to being normal.
"If companies in the creative sectors do not hire autistic people, then they are missing out on a potentially gifted human because they judged a person based on the word 'Autism' or 'Neurodivergent' and not their ability because they don't let the person show them what they got," Felsenstein states. "Where creativity and uniqueness meet imagination, you have something wonderful, and the world needs to understand that."
Artist – In April 2022, Foot Locker partnered with two autistic artists, Rebecca Oslaky and Dane Capo, who each designed a custom "Be Seen" tee. Spectrum Designs produced these t-shirts. Spectrum Designs is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to creating meaningful and inclusive employment and vocational training opportunities in a neurodiverse world.
Singing – Choirs, operas, musical theaters, and course bands are full of various vocalists. Singers can find the style of performance and music they like best, and if they are willing to rehearse and learn new songs, there will always be work for them. Some training may be required, but opportunities vary greatly, and artistry and talent will be rewarded.
Graphic design – Learn programs like Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign, and graphic design applications are endless. Print and online, news journalism, and creative advertising rely on quality graphic designers. In addition, jobs can come in various forms, including freelance.
"I think in pictures," said Ronald Kerns. Kerns is a graphic designer, diversity, and inclusion speaker diagnosed autistic at age 46. "A great ability to have for when I am laying out a page or needing to envision what type of image to use for an ad." While there may be challenges, Kerns believes he is an asset. "At times, I can "hyper-focus" blocking out all distractions and, while maintaining high-quality work, accomplish a large amount of work in a short amount of time.”
Acting – Inhabiting someone else's life and personality and performing that role for an audience is appealing. If we are honest, people on the spectrum often act and pretend in their daily lives to blend in or not stand out in a crowd. Channel some of that imagination and mix it with some theatrics, a recipe for success on stage or screen. "The performers I have cast for projects, like all I cast, are set up for success before they arrive on set," said Demchick. "If a performer is set up for success with such, I never have an issue with a talent's performance on set. Even the most trepidatious director has ultimately thanked me when I advocated for a disabled performer when ambivalence arises. If set up for success, hiring a performer with a disability is no different from hiring someone without a disability."
Scriptwriter – An abstract published in Sage Journals in 2020 states, "Previous research has suggested that autistic people may struggle with writing, partly due to challenges with Theory of Mind. However, other research indicates that Theory of Mind difficulties are far from universal in autism, varying across developmental and social contexts." The study shows that autistic people put themselves under more pressure to write perfectly than nonautistic students and do not struggle to understand other minds. In short, there's no reason a neurodivergent person couldn't be a writer, journalist, or script writer.
"If you want individuals who know how to think outside the box, your company needs neurodivergent folks," said Izabelle Azevedo, a Scriptwriter and Filmmaker who is autistic and multi-disabled and an inclusion self-advocate. "Many are natural problem solvers and have creativity running in their veins. The thing they say about autistic people not being creative and empathetic? That's a myth. I'm autistic and creative and have met many other creative autistics."
"I believe my highly sensitive perception and empathy, enabled by my neurodivergent brain, are key to my writing and filmmaking process," Azevedo adds. "I can relate to other people's stories somehow, and I literally see the whole thing in my head before I even put it down to paper or edit the footage. I don't think I would be a storyteller if I had a neurotypical brain."
Creative people, neurodivergent, and those who are disabled know who they are. They are full of ideas and bring a unique perspective to all they do.
"As a casting director, we present talent to a brand, director, producer/production company," said Demchick. "With most clients vocal that reflecting the real world is one of their most pressing goals, hiring disabled talent is not a 'plus' but a must. With 1 in 4 people identifying as disabled, if we, as a society, aim to increase inclusion efforts in all industries, then disability should be the most seen. However, people with disabilities are much more than 'just' disabled."
"Nothing is impossible, and I believe that," shares Felsenstein. "An example of this is that last year. I joined the cymbal company Zildjian, the drumstick company. Vic Firth and the drum dampener company Snareweight are independent artists, so everyone should give autistic people a chance to show what they can do instead of judging based on stereotyping the neurodiverse community because stereotyping forces people with autism and other neurodivergent people to mask what society calls a disability."
The Harvard Business Review also supports employing people with autism as a competitive advantage for companies. They say it shows increased morale, improved products and services, higher productivity, and ultimately increased bottom lines.
However, one of the unique advantages is that you have this huge, untapped resource that is being underutilized and could bring unimaginable talent to whatever project you're working on. If you are in the arts or passionate about being creative, how could you not want to connect with those who bring their own inimitable vision to the table?